New Intel 80GB SSD is faster than the best HDD

By Bill O'Brien, Computerworld |  Storage, Intel, SSD

Solid state drives (SSDs) are finally coming into their own -- they're faster, more durable, and use less power than traditional mechanical hard drives. However, the strongest indicator that this may be the storage tech of the future is Intel's release of its X18 and X25 solid state drives.

In our tests, the X25, released this week, is faster twice as the next fastest SSD we've tested and beats the fastest hard disk drive in reads and ties it in writes. The 80GB version, which we tested, is priced at US$595 for quantities up to 1,000.

Both the X18-M and X25-M SSD models are aimed at the mainstream market of laptop and netbook computers; they come, respectively in 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch form factors (as their names suggest).

So what's different about these drives? Well, I tested the 80GB X25-M, and I can tell you is that it is one of the fastest drives -- solid state or not -- that I've tested thus far. Intel turbo charges this drive by interleaving NAND flash chips and using 10 parallel channels and optimized firmware.

SSD vs. HDD
Recently, one of the fastest drive I've reviewed was Western Digital's Velociraptor hard drive. Its 10,000rpm spindle speed and 16MB buffer had it returning a 250.2MB/sec burst speed and 105.6MB/sec average read through HDTach. In my file transfer tests, 4,661 files of various types totaling 8.05GB, writing the data to the Velociraptor took a mere 4.4 minutes and reading the data from it and writing it to another drive needed only 4.04 minutes.

To be fair, the Velociraptor is too large for most laptops and netbooks (it's a 2.5-inch drive wrapped in Western Digital's 3.5-inch "Ice Pack" heatsink form factor). The next fastest I looked at (in the same article) was another Western Digital drive, the Scorpio Black, with a burst speed and average read result of 238.8MB/sec and 63.8MB/sec, respectively.

Intel's X25-M has them both beat. The SSD turned in 256.7MB/sec and 230.2MB/sec burst and transfer rates, respectively. Actual file transfers ran just 4.4 minutes and 3.7 minutes to and from the SSD.

How is it's speed in comparison to another SSD? No problem: Ridata's 64GB Ultra-S Plus is almost half as fast as Intel's X25-M when tested under HDTach while its real-world file transfer times are noticeably slower. The X25-M is a fast SSD.

Boot speed and power consumption
Boot speed is dependent on several things, including the speed of the drive and the amount of drivers and software you're loading during the process. There's also the system BIOS.

On the system I used to test the drive, I started timing from the moment I the power-on button to when Vista's sidebar appeared. (It took, on average, almost 22 seconds to get out of the BIOS and into the actual Windows Vista boot cycle.)

The X25-M booted under loaded conditions (every piece of software and all drivers needed to run the system) in just 1.32 minutes. When I stripped some of the excess out of the startup, boot time dropped to 1.18 minutes. In contrast, Ridata's 64GB Ultra-S Plus needed 1.47 minutes to boot with all drives and software included and 1.23 minutes when pared down.

The surprise here is the Scorpio Black hard disk drive, which went through a loaded boot in 1.28 minutes -- faster than either SSD -- although when booting into a stripped environment it stalled a bit at 1.26 minutes. The mechanicals of the drive imposed more of a burden on the boot process than the depth of the boot environment itself, perhaps bearing out the advantages of an SSD with no moving parts.

Obviously, small boot environments affect actual boot times. That's one of the reasons that initial SSD testing gave them such an advantage. The drives, at that point, had too little capacity to produce a robust environment and so they booted rather quickly with the little they had.

Power consumption is a lesson in obfuscation. It makes absolute sense that a hard drive with moving parts will use more power than an electronic hard drive with no moving parts. Extrapolating on that idea, it then makes perfect sense that putting an SSD into a laptop will cause it to use less power than if it had a mechanical hard drive. It's also looking at the situation in a vacuum.

All of the electronics in your portable use power. The CPU and the GPU are prime among them. The type of work you're doing -- how processor or graphics dependent they are -- are prime movers in sucking your wattage. Then there's your LCD screen. Its brightness control is a huge factor in determining how much of your battery is being chewed on at any given moment. But here's the kicker: if you are judicious in setting your power levels and sleep times for your screen brightness and mechanical hard drive, sliding an SSD into the notebook is not going to do much for you.

Move forward in technology, however, and things change dramatically. If you're looking at a laptop with an ultra low voltage (ULV) processor and a (relatively) small LED lighted screen, a mechanical hard drive makes no sense whatsoever. It will become the boat anchor for your operating times. An SSD, on the other hand, compliments the low power consumption inherent in such a system. The combination of all power saving components is how manufacturers have been able to reach high single-digit operating times and even touch on double-digit power ratings.

Capacity and enterprise models
Capacity has been a factor in the reluctance of vendors to adapt SSDs, but Intel appears to have hit the bull's eye at 80GB, is a comfortable size for laptops. (Unless, perhaps, you're running Vista -- Ridata's 64GB SSD had only 3.97GB available once the OS, drivers, and software were installed. Vista immediately painted it red -- for critically low capacity.)

There are also enterprise models of Intel's drive available for business computing users who require a slightly higher performance level: the X18-E and X25-E Extreme SLC models. What separates these from the X18-M and X25-M is the technology behind them.

Theoretically, the performance potential available from Intel's 80GB X25-M is slower because it uses multi-level cell (MLC) NAND technology; in other words, it stores multiple bits per cell. The X18-E and X25-E drives, on the other hand, use single-level cell (SLC) technology, considered the faster of the two strategies by virtue of its one-bit per cell storage rate.

I certainly can't argue with the premise behind that (it makes sense) and, until I can get my paws on one of Intel's Extreme SLC models -- expected out within 90 days -- for comparison, it would be arrogant of me to jump to a conclusion one way or the other.

Conclusions
All that being said, I will probably stick with more traditional hard drives, at least for the near future. This is mostly because I don't ever intend on owning a Netbook -- I doubt I could press a single key given the size of my fingers. So if I were going to buy tomorrow, my preference would lie with the Scorpio Black. The performance hit is minor and the capacity is 4x that of the X25-M.

For a potential Netbook owner, however, the way it looks right now is that the X25-M is the King of the Hill of mainstream SSDs. It may have taken Intel longer than most to come to the table, but it's brought a better feast.

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